Making social science accessible

16 May 2023

UK-EU Relations

Kathryn Simpson and Nick Startin set out the findings of their recent paper, which analyses the front pages of the five British daily tabloids during the final stages of the Brexit referendum campaign.

Seven years on from the UK’s referendum on EU membership, there has been a wealth of academic research attempting to explain the 2016 Brexit vote. Some authors have emphasised the influence of the UK’s historical relationship with the EU, while others have looked to the failure of the EU to embrace the reform agenda. Others have attempted to explain the result by focusing on the campaign itself.

Research on the question has also looked at the role played historically by the British media. But to what extent did the UK’s tabloid press shape public opinion during the referendum and did this influence the outcome?

In Britain ‘hard’ euroscepticism stemming from the tabloid press has long been widespread. Since the Maastricht era, tabloid newspapers such as The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have become renowned for portraying the EU in negative terms and as against the national interest.

Infamous headlines such as The Sun’s ‘Up Yours Delors’ front-page have become iconic reference points for British eurosceptics. In effect, the British tabloid press (BTP) has served as the mechanism to link the historical British eurosceptic legacy to the 2016 referendum campaign.

In a recent paper, we argue that the ‘agenda setting’ role of the tabloid press, combined with the EU ‘knowledge gap’ in Britain left some voters susceptible to the cues of the tabloid press in the final stages of the campaign.

We analyse the final stages of the EU referendum campaign by focusing on the front pages of the five British daily tabloids – The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express and the Daily Star – looking at the 25 issues prior to the referendum. We selected this time frame as it was both the crucial ‘business end’ of the campaign, and it coincided with the official ‘purdah’ period which prohibited official information being released in the four weeks prior to the referendum.

Research has found that ‘coverage of immigration more than tripled over the course of the campaign, rising faster than any other political issue’ and that this was particularly noticeable in the final month before the referendum. We found that the British Tabloid Press (BTP) progressively centred on the theme of immigration to shape its eurosceptic narrative and set the agenda in the final stages of the campaign.

In terms of support for Brexit by readership, The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, with a combined readership of almost four million outnumbered the Remain supporting Daily Mirror (809,147) by four to one.  Scrutiny of the front pages of the five tabloids also illustrates the lopsided nature of the framing of Brexit. A robust examination of the front-page headlines of each paper in the 25 days prior to the referendum illustrates very clearly that the three tabloids supporting Brexit devoted their front pages to Brexit far more frequently than either the Remain-supporting Daily Mirror or the neutral Daily Star.

The bombardment approach of the three Brexit-supporting tabloids kept the salience of the referendum high throughout the latter stages of the campaign. Two of the three pro-Brexit tabloids, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, devoted over three quarters of their front pages to the referendum in their 25 editions prior to the vote.

Overall, the 48 pro-Brexit front pages, compared to the seven Remain or neutral front pages in the 25 editions of the five tabloids across the chosen time frame, provides a stark illustration of the lopsided nature of the tabloid coverage in the final stages of the referendum.

What is also clear from the analysis of the front pages of the three pro-Brexit tabloids is not only the prominence of the ‘bombardment’ approach, but also the shared focus on immigration. Of the 48 out of 75 front pages related to the referendum from the three pro-Brexit tabloids, 27 were directly (or indirectly) related to immigration. By contrast, the Remain-supporting Daily Mirror only started to illustrate its support for EU membership with front-page headlines in the final three days of the campaign.

Our analysis is reinforced by an IPSOS Mori Issues index poll published on the day of the referendum which showed that ‘concern with immigration had risen by ten percentage points [to 48%] since the comparable May Index, when concern stood at 38%.’ Concern with immigration was particularly high, the IPSOS report confirmed, ‘for Conservative supporters (61%), those aged 65 and over and those from social grade C2 (both 60%).’ All three of these demographics are core in terms of the readership of the British Tabloid Press.

We recognise the limitations of our conclusions, given the long-standing debate about whether the press responds to the public, and the extent to which individuals believe what they read in newspapers. However, research in this area does reinforce our argument about the impact of the agenda-setting, anti-immigration, ‘bombardment approach’ on influencing tabloid readers.

Such a polarized framing in a referendum where one third of voters made up their mind which way to vote in the final stages of the campaign, undoubtedly had an impact.

By Dr Kathryn Simpson, Associate Professor in Politics & Economics of the European Union, Keele University, and Dr Nick Startin, Associate Professor of International Relations, John Cabot University, Rome.  

This post draws on the article ‘Tabloid Tales: how the British Press Shaped the Brexit Vote‘, published in the Journal of Common Market Studies.

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